The Causes, Aftermath and Lessons of 9/11

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America suffered its deadliest terrorist attack eight years ago, on September 11, 2001. Nearly three thousand people, mostly Americans, were murdered, and thousands more wounded. The great institution of American and global capitalism, the World Trade Center, was destroyed.

Americans agree that we should remember 9/11. The current president has declared it a "National Day of Service and Remembrance" on which we should honor community service. This has been criticized by many conservatives as "statist" politicization of that horrific day. Some might respond that it was politicized by the last president too.

Indeed, within 24 hours of the planes hitting the Twin Towers, many Americans mourned but also reacted quickly with their thoughts of the event’s political implications. Many on the right said that the attack showed the need for a more aggressive foreign policy. Others on the left said that it was time to stop being critical of big government. Calls for restricting civil liberties could be heard before the Pentagon fire was extinguished, and they continue to this day.

If it is fair game for people to politicize 9/11 in this way, as an argument for more government and less liberty, people should also feel free to advance different conclusions about terrorism. We must never forget that day, and it is also important, if we want to prevent such attacks in the future, to understand what led up to the event and what has transpired since.

Understanding the Atrocity

Why did it happen? One answer given was that the terrorists simply hated America for its freedom. Those who believed this tended to feel that war was the only answer — war to punish the evildoers and war to rebuild foreign societies so they would be free and no longer resent us. Another answer given was that the terrorists, although murderous criminals, were exploiting genuine grievances that many people in Muslim countries had against U.S. foreign policy.

Osama bin Laden repeatedly stressed the major objections: The U.S. had been supporting apostate dictatorships in the Muslim world, given one-sided support to Israel, occupied holy land such as the Arabian Peninsula, and enforced brutal sanctions on the Iraqi people that had left hundreds of thousands of Muslims, mostly children, dead.

Americans are warned not to forget what happened eight years ago, but we must not assume history began on that date. Those in the Muslim world tend to have a much longer memory.

In 1953, the CIA helped to oust the democratically elected leader of Iran, a man who had been featured as Time Magazine’s "Man of the Year" just a year before, and replaced him with the corrupt and brutal Shah, a dictator who ushered in a period of torture, terror and mass inflation. Twenty-six years later we saw the "blowback" — a term the CIA uses to describe the unintended reaction from American policy abroad — in the form of the Islamic Revolution. Iran fell under the grip of fundamentalists, but most of the nation would not rally against America for purely cultural reasons. What united them was resentment toward the U.S. meddling in their country.

Meanwhile, as part of the Cold War, the U.S. began supporting agitators in Afghanistan so as to incite a Soviet invasion and bring about an overstretch of the Soviet military. Although today most Americans think of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan at the time as purely defensive against Soviet belligerence, President Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski admitted this was far from the case in a 1998 interview:

"According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention."

These U.S.-allied Mujahideen in Afghanistan were championed as "freedom fighters," but many went on to form the basis of the Taliban and al Qaeda. The Taliban became one of the most brutal and backwards regimes on the planet, but as late as May of 2001, the U.S. was sending tens of millions of dollars to the Taliban to finance its war on opium.

Throughout the 1980s, the fundamentalist Iranian regime, which had come about in reaction to the U.S.-installed Shah, was seen as the greatest threat in the region. Thus did the United States throw its support behind Saddam Hussein, who, along with his Baathist party, had been a U.S.-sponsored operative for decades in Iraq. An Iran-Iraq war ensued, wherein the U.S. sent weaponry, material support, money and intelligence to the Iraqi dictatorship. At the same time, the Reagan administration secretly sold weapons to Iran, as well.

In 1990, the U.S. went to war with Iraq after Saddam invaded Kuwait, although a U.S. diplomat had indicated to him that the U.S. would stay out of such a conflict. Propaganda about Kuwaiti babies being torn from their incubators, and an impending threat from Saddam to Saudi Arabia, got most of the American people on board. But it was a short war, and by 1992 the popular war was a faded memory as the recession and Perot took the presidential throne from the incumbent commander in chief.

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Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a research analyst at the Independent Institute and editor-in-chief of the Campaign for Liberty. He lives in Oakland, California. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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